COP 26: The good, the bad, and the takeaways

By Cathy Cowan Becker

Unless you were hiding under a rock these last two weeks, then you are aware of the COP 26 climate talks taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. COP stands for Conference of Parties – it is the annual meeting of countries of the world under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to discuss and make commitments for dealing with the climate crisis.

Although COPs occur every year – and have been happening for the past 26 years – some COPs are more important that others. Most important in recent history was COP 21 in Paris, when for the first time all nations of the world agreed to make their own voluntary commitments, known as National Determined Contributions, to fight the climate crisis.

Although the total of national commitments in Paris was not enough to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) – the limit that the agreement set – the nations did agree to meet every five years to ratchet up their commitments. COP 26 in Glasgow – rescheduled from 2020 due to the covid pandemic – was the first meeting at which these additional commitments were to take place.

So what happened? In nutshell, many nations forged several positive compacts on things like deforestation and methane, but they did not commit to the emissions reductions that must be done if we are to have a livable planet – and particularly if we are not to sacrifice the low-income countries and low-lying nations that did the least to cause the climate crisis but are feeling the worst of its wrath. Language on fossil fuels was watered down, and equity was given very short shrift.

If there is a way to see an agreement as forging a few historic firsts while being completely inadequate to the need, COP 26 would be that agreement.

The Good

So first, let’s talk about a few good things that came out of COP 26.

Nature and Land Use Day at COP 26

Forests. 141 countries covering 90% of forests worldwide signed a Declaration on Forest and Land Use committing “to working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation.” Signers included Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia, all with high rates of deforestation.

Methane. Over 100 countries representing 70% of the economy joined the Global Methane Pledge spearheaded by the United States and European Union to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030. Methane is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and must be dealt with to have a livable planet. However, top methane emitters Russia, China, and India were not part of the pledge.

US-China. The United States and China agreed to work together to “enhance ambition” on emissions reductions. The agreement is important because the United States and China are the top two carbon emitters, but it did not set any specific goals or include any specific timeline beyond “phasing down” coal by 2026.

There were also multi-country agreements on preserving 30% of the ocean by 2030, transitioning to sustainable agriculture, making zero-emission vehicles the new normal, and more. But while all of this is progress, it was overshadowed by the weakness of the final agreement signed by all of the nearly 200 nations on the last day of negotiations at the COP.

The Bad

Coal and fossil fuels

Several points of heavy contention went into the final agreement. First, language around fossil fuel subsidies and ending use of coal was substantially watered down. The first draft of the agreement said it “Calls upon parties to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.”

Atmospheric carbon levels through the COPs.

It is the first time the words “fossil fuels” have been included in a COP agreement – but the second draft changed this sentence to read “Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies and the adoption of policies for the transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up clean power generation and accelerating the phaseout of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuel” – much weaker and more obfuscating.

Then in a last-minute switch due to lobbying by India, the language was changed again to “accelerating the phase-down of unabated coal power” – phasing coal down rather than phasing it out.

In the end, the agreement calls for only “unabated” coal power to be phased down  – opening the door to claims of coal plants with carbon capture and storage, a technology that has been touted for decades but never worked. Further, fossil fuel subsidies could continue if they are said to be “efficient.” I don’t know in what world $11 million in per minute in fossil fuel subsidies could be considered efficient, but you know that politicians paid off by big coal and big oil will claim they are.

Aid to developing countries

Imagine if instead of spending $11 million per minute to artificially lower the cost of coal, oil, and gas that are destroying the biosphere that supports life, instead we used that to fund renewable energy, public transit, and climate mitigation around the world. In 90 minutes we would reach the $100 billion in climate funding promised to developing nations at the 2009 Copenhagen conference – but still not delivered.

Simon Kofe, Tuvalu minister of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, addresses COP 26 remotely knee deep in water.

Developing countries wanted to create a specific fund – or “facility” in UN parlance – that wealthy countries would pay into to help vulnerable nations deal with the effects of the climate crisis and transition to clean energy. However, wealthy countries including the United States and European Union, worried about how much they might have to pay, opposed creation of this fund.

Instead, “loss and damage” – UN parlance for wealthy countries paying to help poor countries deal with the climate crisis that wealthy countries have caused but that hits poor countries the hardest – was another major point of contention at COP 26 – and perhaps its biggest disappointment.

Instead of requiring wealthy countries to pay their fair share, the final COP 26 agreement expresses “serious concern” about the gap between what has been promised and what has been delivered, and “urges” wealthy countries to “significantly increase” the amount they are giving to help vulnerable countries – but no specific amounts are mentioned, no timeline for giving, and no responsibility for which countries should give what.

National commitments

Emissions reductions needed to reach 1.5, 1.8, and 2C, from Carbon Brief.

Worst of all, while the Glasgow climate conference was supposed to be the moment when nations ratcheted up their Paris commitments enough to hold global warming to 1.5°C, in reality current 2030 commitments get us to around 2.4°C by 2100, possibly as high as 3.4°C. Promises of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 – if kept — could result in 1.8°C warming by 2100, possibly as high as 2.4C.

In another measure, the world currently emits about 55 gigatons of CO2 (GtCO2) per year – giving us less than a decade before we exhaust the remaining carbon budget of 460 GtCO2 for a 50% likelihood of staying below warming of 1.5°C by 2100. To achieve 1.5°C, we need to cut emissions to 24.6 GtCO2 by 2030. However, COP 26 commitments lower emissions only to 48 GtCO2. Even a 2°C scenario requires emissions of 39.2 GtCO2.

Clearly the commitments out of COP 26 are nowhere near enough for 2°C, let alone 1.5°C. The only thing keeping the hope of 1.5°C alive is that – at the insistence of vulnerable nations – the parties agreed to meet again next year for another round of ratcheting up commitments, instead of waiting until 2025.

“For us, ambition, 1.5 is not a statistic. It is a matter of life and death,” said Kenya’s environment minister, Keriako Tobiko. “The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is a death sentence for us,” said Aminath Shauna, minister of environment, climate change and technology in the Maldives.

In case you are wondering, COP 27 will take place November 7-18, 2022, in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

Lobbyists and Activists

A note that activists sent to COP 26 negotiators.

Several circumstances led to these weak commitments in COP 26. First was the United Kingdom’s strict testing, vaccination, and quarantine requirements, when most developing nations have little to no access to the vaccine. COP 26 required everyone to show a negative test before travel and after they arrived, as well as every morning before going to the venue. If you were unvaccinated or from a red listed country – and many developing countries were red listed with little access to vaccines — you also had to quarantine for 10 days before the conference. The result is many people from developing countries in the global South could not attend, and COP 26 was the richest and most privileged COP in history.

In addition, more than 500 fossil fuel lobbyists attended COP 26 – more than any national delegation – representing over 100 fossil fuel companies and 30 trade associations. Twice as many fossil fuel lobbyists attended as members of indigenous nations, and you can see the results in the agreement. Greenwashing was strong as corporations like Shell, Gazprom and BP funded displays and events portraying themselves as the solutions to the climate crisis, not its cause.

But activists were also a crucial presence at COP 26, whether in the Blue Zone negotiating halls, the civil society Green Zone, or the streets. On November 6, well over 100,000 people marched for climate in Glasgow – the city’s total population is only 600,000. During the final days of negotiations, as it became clear the commitments would not be enough, activists staged a walkout, then a die-in.

One of the most consistent activist voices throughout the event was the COP 26 Coalition. Besides the Global Day of Action climate march, they organized daily movement assemblies, a digital rally with Naomi Klein and Ilhan Omar, and a four-day People’s Summit of speakers, films, and panel discussions. Many voices of the global south not present in the main venue were given a platform there.

The Takeaways

Looking at the outcome of COP 26, it’s easy to get discouraged. If world leaders who are fully aware of the stakes cannot bring themselves to do what it takes to preserve life on earth, then what hope do we have? Yet despite robustly calling out the failures of the agreement, not a single activist plans to give up.

“The #COP26 is over. Here’s a brief summary: Blah, blah, blah,” Greta Thunberg tweeted. “But the real work continues outside these halls. And we will never give up, ever.”

And so, we won’t. I see three pathways for next steps:

Divestment. It’s clear that fossil fuel consumption must end, and equally clear that national and global politicians are not going to do it – so it’s up to us. The only thing fossil fuel corporations – the richest industry in human history – understand is money. So hit ‘em where it hurts. Get your banks and insurance companies to stop underwriting pipelines, and get your universities and retirement plans to sell off fossil fuel stocks. Coal, oil, and gas are stranded assets. The massive reserves we know about can’t be burned if we want a livable planet. Meanwhile, renewable energy is taking off. Any portfolio manager worth their salt should know to dump fossil fuel stocks and buy stock in renewables. But it will take a push from customers, employees, students, and retirees to make them take this step. Groups that can help include Stop the Money Pipeline and Bill’s McKibben’s Third Act.

Go local. Cities are responsible for 70% of carbon emissions, so that’s where we will get the most return on investment in climate action. Does your city have an office of sustainability or sustainability coordinator? Does it measure its carbon emissions? Does it have a climate plan? What is your city doing about energy efficiency, renewable energy, public transit, bike lanes and sidewalks, community gardens, zero carbon buildings, composting, and more? Do low income and communities of color – who frequently live in polluted areas with high energy burdens — have a seat at the table? You can push for all of this at the local level – and your voice goes much further than on the world stage.

Cut what you can. You may be just one person, but what you do reverberates to others. Put your money – and your mouth – where your values are. The most effective way to rebel against a system based on overconsumption is to not participate. Buy local instead of ordering off Amazon. Eat less meat. Take public transportation. Get your clothes at a thrift shop. Use libraries and lending shops. Don’t buy cheap stuff made in China and shipped here. Work from home if your job allows it. Ditch plastic bags and single-use plastics. Grow some of your own food. Get solar panels and an electric vehicle if you can (and the used EV market is growing), but even if you can’t, there’s still a lot you can do.

And above all, advocate. Keep talking about the climate crisis and advocating for action. The only advantage of the climate crisis is that it affects everything – so there are endless ways to do something about it. You could start a business based on refillable toiletries. You could teach people how to garden. You could get solar panels on your child’s school or get your workplace to recycle. Pick something and stick to it. You can make a difference, and if other people do the same, together we can all make progress — whether or not world leaders choose to help.

COP 26 Resources

Schedule and recordings of meetings, speeches, and presentation in the Blue Zone negotiating halls – from COP 26 site or on YouTube. Item of note: Sir David Attenborough’s 7.5 minute speech.

Recorded events from the civil society Green Zone.

Recorded sessions from the COP 26 Coalition

New York Times Climate Hub

Cathy Cowan Becker is executive director of Simply Living. She traveled to COP 21 in Paris and holds a masters in public administration and environment and natural resources.